“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

9 June 2017

On Labour's success in the General Election and implications for Brexit

Labour hasn't won the General Election, but it feels like it has, and has good reason to feel that way. Theresa May called the election believing that she would batter Labour into virtual irrelevance. But circumstances - and the voters - had other ideas.

I try to avoid predictions, but like most people I was pretty confident that May would win a decent majority yesterday even after all her wobbles of recent weeks.

Her weaknesses certainly have a lot to do with the result. Early on after she called the election she was way ahead of Labour in the polls, but the campaigning has found her out. She is clearly not a happy campaigner and not a people person. Her strengths seem to be in making carefully calibrated and calculated political interventions, as she has done with a handful of impressive speeches on Brexit. During the campaign she came across as wooden and fearful, which isn't a good look for a leader, let alone one running a quasi-presidential campaign saying 'Vote for Me', not us. Then when the terrorist attacks came, she did her thing but was quickly exposed by Labour on police cuts and didn't have the flexibility and political skills to respond.

Which brings us on to Labour, for its success is not just down to the weaknesses of its opponents. Credit to Jeremy Corbyn, though I'm the opposite of a fan of his, he ran a positive campaign with a positive manifesto offering hope. In the process, and with Labour 'moderates' shutting up, Labour managed to sidestep its divisions and piece together a coalition of voters that was enough to pick up 40% of the vote.

There was clearly a 'Corbyn effect', energising and enthusing younger voters as well as old lefties, and taking advantage of the Greens calling so much for a progressive alliance, thereby basically telling their people they may as well vote Labour, which many did.

However, I think most observers neglect the strength of the Labour machine, which was built up during the Kinnock and Blair-Brown years and is expert at targeting voters, manufacturing simple messages, tailoring them to different demographic groups and rolling it all out in co-ordinated, basically effective local campaigns.

In this way Labour managed to, somehow, square the circle on Brexit, at least in electoral terms. The idea that the election was a rejection of Brexit seems misguided (probably willfully for the most part), not least given prominent Brexit campaigner Kate Hoey's thumping victory in the heavily-Remain-voting Vauxhall constituency - when she had a highly personal campaign waged against her by the Liberal Democrats in league with Gina Miller and other prominent Remainers. For Remain supporters, Labour did offer something though; it opposed Theresa May and her apparent 'hard Brexit' strongly. However for Leave voters it offered something too: accepting the referendum result and agreeing to the trigger of Article 50 - thereby partially neutralising the focus of May's campaign even before she got into trouble over her manifesto and terrorism/police cuts.

To me, Labour's position on Brexit looks incoherent as actual policy, since its people say they want Single Market access while also wanting some kind of vague end of free movement while also maintaining they couldn't walk away without a deal. These aims seem incommensurable if taken seriously. I would guess they derive from a compromise trying to keep three different forces within the party happy. These are the following:

  1. The likes of Corbyn and John McDonnell who understand that Brexit could open up more opportunities for the exercise of national government and quite like the idea, but know they need to keep their EU fan activists and MPs on board;
  2. Those people (and Labour has plenty of them) who do not understand negotiations and genuinely fail to realise that you have to be prepared to walk away in order to get a 'good' deal;
  3. Those who are connected into the Mandelson-Blair project which links in to George Osborne and a few other Tories, some Liberal Democrats and also into the EU, who can see Brexit unravelling if Britain refuses to accept a deal offered by the EU. In this way they want to guide us to that point while indulging their more naive party colleagues that a hard Brexit would be disastrous so should be ruled out altogether. I don't know anything about this personally, but I would assume Keir Starmer as Labour's Shadow Secretary on Brexit is plugged in to this group.

What happens next I have as little idea as anyone else, but there is no doubt that these anti-Brexit forces are now strengthened. Labour may have voted to trigger Article 50, but it is not fully committed to Brexit and the positions it takes could easily dilute it to the point of not actually happening. Those positions will now have a greater influence on what actually happens. The Blair-Mandelson-Osborne-Clegg project could yet win out by the back door, which is rather apt given that neither of them are sitting MPs any longer.

26 May 2017

On Bullshit - that British foreign policy causes terrorist attacks

The idea that British foreign policy somehow caused Salman Abedi to go and kill children in Manchester is so stupid that on one level it seems offensive to even discuss it.

Yet this idea is strongly present in our public life, promoted by Islamist organisations like CAGE and recycled by countless left-wingers, including – in diluted form – by Jeremy Corbyn in a speech he is to deliver today.

As Corbyn will put it, “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.”

It is a fair point to make that there is a difference between causation and blame. That basic distinction applies also to immigration, for which we can say runaway housing costs and pressure on public services are partly caused by increased numbers of people but this does not mean that incomers are in any way to blame.

The trouble is politically, whereby figures like Corbyn highlighting this link feeds into a widespread narrative that takes foreign policy is the cause, a single cause, rather than a contributing, motivating aspect (or excuse) in some cases. Coupling this with saying that attacks like Manchester are ‘nothing to do with Islam’, you end up with a situation in which terrorists’ religious justifications for doing what they do are discounted, except as a form of determinism, of provocation and response. Their agency is pushed to the margins in favour of an account of causation in which Britain or the West or non-Muslims always appear as subject while Muslims are objects simply doing what the subject causes them to do.

This explanation is a negation of morality and ethics. It also barely qualifies as a truth claim. Indeed, it seems to me that addressing the truth isn’t the point to it. The 'foreign policy' explanation not a lie so much as bullshit, intended to deceive and draw people towards a certain way of seeing the world. It is political.

As Harry Frankfurt put it in his wonderful little essay, ‘On Bullshit’,

“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of disinterested and austere discipline.”

He added, “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth - this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit . . . the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”

People using the ‘British foreign policy’ explanation are playing politics rather than attempting to tell a truth. With sometimes admirable motives, albeit in the process sacrificing concern with the truth, they are attempting to draw attention away from the religion and the religious group and towards something that treats both of those things as victims and as virtuous.

This is also what Islamist politics and Islamist organisations are trying to do of course, though with not such admirable political motives.

It is concerning the way that other major institutions, including large parts of the Labour Party, have fallen into recycling the same bullshit that they do.

24 May 2017

Islamic terror now has a comfortable place in our political life

These days I am often reminded of a scene from the film The Godfather Part II.

Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone is in Cuba for a meeting of gang and business bosses to divide up the spoils of corrupt deals with the Batista government. Driving around the island he sees a number of Castro rebels being arrested, one of whom breaks away and kills himself and a military police captain with a grenade.

In relating the episode to fellow bosses, Michael says this tells him something about the rebels, that “they can win”. The fact that the rebels were motivated enough to die for their cause showed that they could prevail over a regime that had to pay its people to fight. (One of the other business-crime bosses present by contrast dismisses them as ‘lunatics’. Shortly afterwards the Batista regime crumbles and Fidel Castro takes over.)

In Downing Street yesterday, Theresa May as Prime Minister gave one of those speeches that are becoming familiar to us and also to her and the likes of her. Commentators praised her for finding the right words and showing the right level of resolve. She rounded it off by saying,

“And today, let us remember those who died and let us celebrate those who helped, safe in the knowledge that the terrorists will never win – and our values, our country and our way of life will always prevail.”

I think it’s worthwhile thinking about some of these words and formulations:

  • Safe
  • Knowledge
  • The terrorists will never win
  • Our values, our country and our way of life will always prevail

There’s an awful lot of knowledge being expressed there, and it’s knowledge of the future, which is a self-contradiction, (yet is all over the place in our political life, notoriously in the economic warnings of Project Fear during the EU referendum). We don’t and can’t know these things. We cannot be sure, and we are certainly not safe in the knowledge that everything is going to be OK. Safe is the opposite of what those young concert-goers and their parents turned out to be. Given things now are not OK and have got worse over time, there is every reason to suppose they will not get better in the future.

Claiming to see into the future gives this sort of talk from May and others a cosmic character. It is the sort of talk that a religious leader would use, claiming knowledge of the future and therefore control of it, demanding the flock keep the faith and stay with her.

It’s an assertion of authority. But the resort to prophecy is also part of a pattern and a habit. We have heard it all before from political leaders past and present, home and abroad. Tony Blair was a master at it, and I think it is his example that everyone has been following since.

They have all fallen into the same way of addressing the problem: by invoking this quasi-mystical authority that they know the nature of history and can therefore tell us what to think and how to feel. Moreover, seemingly everyone with a pretension to lead is at it: issuing instructions and making demands, including that those who do not obey their demands are punished (Katie Hopkins seems to have taken this role from Nigel Farage as a sort of folk devil for progressives).

In this way, Islamic terror is now integrated into a system of possibilities and responses for those involved in our political life, from politicians to the police to community and faith leaders and the rest of us in everyday life. The patterns have been established. The responses have been prepared and are ready to employ whenever a new attack occurs.

Meanwhile the sort of people who committed the atrocity in Manchester on Monday night are not going away. They are clearly in it for the long term, and are not lacking in commitment or organisational skills. We may dismiss them as ‘lunatics’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘irrational’, but they have shown an ability to plan and execute complex and demanding military and logistic tasks in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and elsewhere – and now, increasingly, in Europe and even North America.

But what would it mean for them to win and to defeat us and ‘our values, our country and our way of life’? Theresa May and others wouldn’t be saying what she says if it wasn’t now in question.

Obviously, in the near future, there is no chance of jihadists taking over the government or mounting a coup and establishing a Caliphate in Britain or Europe. They do not have the power.

But that is probably not the point. What their actions do is to draw attention to their cause of maximising Islamic power, while re-asserting their antagonism to other sources of power which they see as threatening it (from governments ‘intervening’ in Islamic countries to little girls going to Ariana Grande concerts).

By drawing attention to their conflict, they re-create it, create opposition and thereby eke out a greater role for themselves in defending Muslims and attacking those who threaten Muslims. This role is also taken on by non-violent Islamist representative organisations. Every jihadist attack also brings attention to them and re-states their importance in public life as mediators between Muslim communities, the state and the rest of society.

It therefore gives these softer Islamists political power, leverage and some justification for their claims of victimisation, which in turn brings the forces of the state to their side in a protective role, which is something they want to extend.

Their consistent underlying message is ‘do what we say and this will stop’. Make way to our demands and the situation will come under control. Protect Muslims from attack and the extremists will no longer feel the need to respond. Stop people being nasty to Muslims. Bring in a blasphemy law to protect Islam from attack. Arrest those who criticise Islam. Ban practices which offend us as Muslims, like highly sexualised Ariana Grande songs being performed in school.

These are much softer demands than those for an Islamic Caliphate, but they are demands which wouldn't have much force would it not be for the 'problem' of terrorist attacks and the opposition which they encourage between Muslims and non-Muslims. For Islamists as well as for our politicians, Islamic terrorist attacks play a role.

While we all stand together, united against extremism, we gradually come to accommodations that pass ‘our values’ and the rest not to the extremists, but to those who use them as cover to achieve the same ends of our society and state becoming more Islamic, incrementally and without us barely noticing.

This is what defeat would look like in practice. 

30 March 2017

On Richard Dawkins and Brexit: confusing science with politics

“One fact of life I have learned over the years is that it is possible to be very clever and stupid at the same time.”

Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and diarist of the New Labour years, said that in his latest memoir Hinterland, referring to judges who presided over the notorious miscarriages of justice that unravelled in the 1980s and early 1990s, like the Birmingham Six IRA bombing case which he was involved in.

This line has come to mind several times lately reading the outbursts of some of those who are still livid at the EU referendum result.

Now I don’t have a problem with people who feel strongly about remaining in the EU, just as long as they respect those on the other side as legitimate political opponents who have worthwhile arguments and in this case won a democratic battle fair and square. The trouble with the arch-Remainers that I am thinking of – the Labour MP David Lammy, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the philosopher A.C. Grayling come to mind – is that they each treat their own opinion as absolute, as a form of law which has been broken by an ignorant population that does not know what is good for it. For them, the EU vote came down to one choice: the right thing or the wrong thing - and they knew absolutely which was which.

Into this fray the respected evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has thrown himself with an impressive enthusiasm, issuing some remarkably abrasive tweets and now writing what is perhaps best described as a frothing rant (otherwise known as an article) for the New Statesman, entitled, ‘We need a new party - the European Party’. In this piece we can see, perhaps as clearly as we will ever see, the troubles that scientists (or quasi-scientists like in the social sciences, including economics) can get into when they fail to respect the limits of their science and start using the authority they have in their fields to pronounce on politics.

Dawkins starts off his article by trying to cover himself from this though, saying,

“I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history.”

This is a nice bit of double-think, for it says that he isn’t qualified to decide, but also establishes that he is qualified to say who is, which means he can take for himself the authority of those who have the authority. You just pick up on the arguments of whatever authority you choose in those fields that you decide are relevant and you have the authority too: job done.

Now he has gathered up a nice slug of authority for himself, he can properly let rip in the meat of the article:

“I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.”

It is difficult to counter arguments characterised by a succession of assertions like this, not because they are good arguments, but because you don’t know where to start. But we can see at the core of his arguments this word ‘rational’ – that his arguments and those of people he trusts are rational, while those of others aren’t; some instances of fear are rational, others aren’t.

For him, the EU referendum question was a technical matter to be decided by the relevant experts (the qualification criteria for which he does not explain, but reserves for himself). As he puts it, “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.”

As I have found in reading and listening to other arch-Remainers, Dawkins does not address the actual arguments of his opponents. He does not quote them or take them on based on their core arguments. Rather he makes his appeal by assertion and insult – thereby departing from the scientific method of analysis which he invokes to justify his authority. He rants about the distrust of experts, but does not address how his supposedly infallible economic experts failed miserably with their predictions for the economic consequences of a Brexit vote.

But worse is the way that he brushes over the core arguments of the Leave side, which I supported. For him, the arguments made about democracy, sovereignty and accountability have no relevance. They do not fit into his schema so must be illegitimate for being irrational (as well as being apparently ‘visceral, emotional and xenophobic’ in character). Dawkins confuses science and politics, trying to reduce the latter to the former, relegating politics to a technical discipline in which we have a surface democracy but the real power is wielded by political and economic experts.

To the elitist accusation, he says,

“Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite.”

By this viewpoint, the ultimate ends of politics and of mankind should be put out of our reach as citizens.

Personally, I think it’s marvellous that a majority of us stuck two fingers up at this sort of view in the referendum. For democracy to be meaningful, as democratic society, what we vote about must also be meaningful. We must be able to make change happen, as a political community, with poorer and less educated people having the same basic power as me or you or Richard Dawkins or his elite clerisy.

Change must be possible, otherwise we are simply living in what the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev called ‘managed democracy’, not so far off from the kind that Vladimir Putin runs in Russia as we might like to think.

So, as I have said here before about my own choice, Je ne regrette rien.

23 January 2017

Brexit and the arts: reflections on a BBC Radio 3 discussion

Listening to BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme the other day, I was struck by a discussion they had about Brexit and the arts – and thought it was worth breaking off from my book-writing to reflect on it a little.

The discussion illustrated once more the remarkable hold that ideas and myths associated with ‘the European project’ have taken over the great and the good in Britain. That includes the BBC of course.

As we have come to expect from the Beeb since it was allowed to drop its impressive impartiality during the referendum campaign, the discussion here was remarkably one-sided. All three guests, Cathy Graham of the British Council, composer Gerard McBurney and Emmanuel Hondre of the Philharmonie de Paris, were resolutely anti-Brexit. The only questioning of their consensus came from a short segment of an enjoyable rant from the artist Grayson Perry, railing against the complacency of the arts Establishment for peddling its comfortable ideas and preaching to the converted. 

However, the substance of what Brexit means was for the most part explored only on a plane of abstractions, and Perry's message was assimilated into how ‘we’ need to respond to what a horrible and nasty thing ‘they’ have done to us. Listeners heard from McBurney a fear of how ‘parochialism’ might take over, a wailing about how Leave voters “feel resentful at a world in which ideas flow from one culture to another”, with the strange implication that ideas and people might somehow no longer circulate between these Isles and the rest of the world after Britain leaves the EU.

It was all rather strange. Taking these ideas seriously, you might think that music and ideas and people hadn’t circulated between Britain and the rest of the world before we joined the EU in 1973; as if the arts in Britain were a wasteland before that point and have been some sort of beneficient paradise ever since. It also had me wondering how all these Russian violinists and Chinese viola players and American trumpeters managed to get jobs with British orchestras given that their countries are not in the EU.

But somehow such details didn’t seem to be the point, with the assertions just left hanging, remaining unexplained and unexplored and largely unquestioned by presenter Tom Service (who is generally excellent on this programme and others). It seems that all this was an established consensus (among an Establishment, you might say) – and with established consensus, assumptions are shared and become part of a generally accepted reality, however questionable they are.

Quite clearly, this is what has happened in the arts world. That world, like those of the business and economic elite, mainstream politicians and our major institutions (not least educational), is genuinely baffled by and afraid of the world outside itself. It sees the other half that voted a different way to it as genuinely ‘other’. Existentially, there appear to be two sides which are separate from each other: a new form of a very old class divide.

But that divide is not strictly middle class to working class – and from this Radio 3 discussion I think we could hear some intimations of the lines on which at least one side draws it. The invoking of ‘parochialism’ and ‘provincialism’ by McBurney in particular might be absurd if taken seriously, not least in such a multi-cultural country as Britain, but it points to a slightly different and more substantial political position. That is a political stance of not wanting to be tied down in any way to the land, territory and people of Britain, of not making one’s identity connections on those lines, of subsuming oneself into the much bigger, European entity. This means to a greater or lesser extent sacrificing affiliation to the smaller unit and forsaking the attachment to one’s geographical origins. It is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level, being part of Europe not as a separable part but as indistinguishable from the whole, casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, 'provincial' and ‘nativist’.

This mirrors the political integration of Europe of course: of the drive to sameness, of European citizenship rights trumping those of nation states, of the disintegration of nation states and nationalities within Europe.

Even by getting quite involved in the whole EU referendum thing I still gasp sometimes at the extraordinary hold this story and the myths associated with it have come to have. Indeed I am constantly surprised by how many people – especially those in elite positions in our society – do not just approve of these ideas but are wedded to them as a core part of their own personal identity, one which is utterly different to that of those they oversee from their exalted positions.

It is visceral and emotional and in some ways incoherent (which is the nature of attachment), but it is also indelibly attached to what it is not: the most important aspect of who I am is that I am not like them. As an identity relation, this doesn’t have to manifest itself as being better than them in an absolute sense, but it often does – and certainly does here. There is a potential challenge here for the arts as for politics and the other ‘top’ professions: to show they have something to offer to people they seem to have lost all existential contact with - and often hold in contempt as we have seen from the referendum and its aftermath. This is fundamentally problematic though, for a great many of them are deeply protective of and committed to their separateness and higher status, and of looking down on people.

Thinking of classical music as I do (which is why I was listening to the programme) I couldn’t help associating all this with the modernist music movement. Modernism – especially in its atonal form - often seeks to intellectualise music, to take it beyond tunefulness to a place where it can be judged as other intellectual works are: through the use of concepts, thoughts, brain-power – thereby putting it beyond the reach of those who like music more for its musical qualities and placing its adherents on a pedestal with intellectual, ideological backing to justify it.

To me, one piece of contemporary musical modernism generally sounds pretty much the same as another (generally, awful), whoever produced it and wherever whoever produced it came from. It seems to be part of the same general movement as the wish to disappear into Europe: a process of assimilating and integrating, of losing the connection between ourselves as distinctive beings and the place where we come from: the push of globalisation in other words.

To my mind at least, great works of art are more likely to come from rebelling against this drive than going along with it. In that light, Brexit might itself appear like an artistic statement: one of rebellion and reaction against the people who direct our culture, who tell us what to do and what we should like; an assertion of individuality and distinctiveness. Maybe our Establishments are right to feel threatened by it?

10 November 2016

Liberalism isn't the problem, progressivism is

Liberals and liberalism are being given a hard time in the wake of Donald Trump's victory and Britain's Leave vote in the EU referendum. But is it really liberalism and the liberal outlook which is at stake here and which really stands accused? I am not so sure.

Largely, this is about the way words, terms and labels mean different things to different people and get mixed up in interpretation. On the most basic level, the term 'liberal' means something very different in common American parlance from what it does in the classical British or European sense - complicated by how the American version has worked its way into our consciousness and practice on this side of the pond.

In America, being 'liberal' is largely interchangeable with being 'progressive', which is an historical term that aligns us with a version of historical progress, so that our politics are part of a general progression of life from not-so-good to a lot better. That seems fine and good, except that it claims knowledge of this progression. There is a form of absolute knowledge at work here, since it assumes we know where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going - and that where we're going is a good thing. Anyone who gets in the way of this progression is therefore ignorant, irrational and going against history and all that is right in the world. Their wrongness is not a simple judgement call, but an absolute judgement, based on knowledge - of the 'facts', 'the evidence' or 'expert opinion' you might say.

This way of thinking and being is antagonistic to classical liberal conceptions of freedom and tolerance and scepticism. After all, why should we allow people to speak and act in ways that obstruct the rational and righteous progression of history? If we know, fundamentally, surely they must be stopped and prevented? Tolerance stops here, for to tolerate wrongness like this would mean tolerating the intolerable. Freedom stops here, since having wrong opinions is obstructing the freedom of people to live in that better world we know is coming.

This way of thinking is endemic in our public life and has been for some time. One of Stalin's monikers was 'Leader of Progressive Mankind', but seemingly everyone in the mainstream of politics is progressive nowadays. The way our elites talk about free markets, economic growth and globalisation is steeped in the language of progress - though there is never any utopia over the horizon as there was in the original Marxist version. It's just the habit we are in and that almost all our institutions are integrated into.

In musing upon such things, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott said back in the day that, "What may now be meant by the word 'liberal' is anyone's guess."

He saw so-called liberals enforcing a world - their world - upon the rest of the world through forms of rationalism that claimed to know and know best. Nothing much has changed in that respect.

Liberalism certainly has its problems and issues, not least how it can be led astray like this. But I tend to prefer the version expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell here:

“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

Needless to say, Russell's conception is a world away from the liberalism that people are defending and attacking in the wake of Brexit and Trump's victory. Being liberal is not about holding back from dogmatism now, it is about being dogmatic - and attacking those who do not share the same dogmatism. It is not about being cautious with knowledge, it is about claiming absolute knowledge of the state we've come from, the state we're in and the state that will come. In this sense, liberalism has become its opposite.

Certainly, liberalism in its classical sense is much too limited to provide us with absolute guidance about what we should do in our personal lives or in political life - and neither should we expect it to. But it should at least guide us towards avoiding absolutism, towards respecting the views of others who disagree with us, towards tolerance and understanding the limits of our own understanding - towards humility.

That is why I still count myself as a liberal and as someone of the liberal-left. I am liberal as well as of the left. This may be a very different liberal-left to the form that has been dominant in our public life and that is now getting a kicking, but I won't be giving up this version of liberalism any time soon.

Phantasy Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams

2 November 2016

On post-referendum regret

I was a Leave voter, and I won. However, since that heady early morning of 24rd June when David Dimbleby announced that Britain was leaving the European Union, reality has dawned.

The £ has fallen sharply; bankers and business groups have despaired and threatened to leave the country; there has been a massive jump in ‘hate crime’; the world and especially our former European partners are horrified at us for having chosen isolation and xenophobia over openness and tolerance. Now we are stuck here with all this uncertainty, not knowing what that ugly word ‘Brexit’ means, while our government is clearly clueless and doesn’t know what it’s doing.

It’s a new dawn, a new day – and the new reality we’re living in certainly isn’t comfortable or pleasant.

That’s the story anyway.

Some of it is true. The new reality does come with discomforts and difficulties, and the fractious nature of our politics on the subject of Brexit is pretty unpleasant. But the idea constantly pressed by ardent Remainers in the newspapers and TV and radio studios, that I didn’t know what I was voting for, is entirely bogus. I voted for change, knowing full well that with change comes uncertainty. That’s the whole point of it. Deciding to do things differently comes with difficulties; change requires people to put some work in – to make it work.

This is what happens sometimes in a democracy. The voters – the people – decide that they want to go on a new course. It happened in 1945 when the people of Britain decided the old elites who had run the war had to go, despite Churchill’s role in winning it; it happened in 1997 when we chose to put an end to 18 years of Conservative government and give the fresh-faced and optimistic Tony Blair a go.

The election of these Labour governments brought uncertainty. ‘The markets’ were nervous, even in 1997 after a prolonged charm offensive towards the City and business community by Blair and New Labour. But now Labour is standing against political change that brings uncertainty like this. Even with the far left now running the party under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour spokespeople have been enthusiastically repeating and recycling British Bankers’ Association propaganda demanding that the big banks get their way so that Brexit barely happens, if at all.

What we have at the moment is a mainstream left (or ‘liberal-left’) that is almost wholly lined up behind the status quo in terms of the fundamentals of how our society operates – despite Corbyn, and however much it talks about change. I think this is partly a function of Labour having been in power for so long (from 1997 to 2010), that it has developed a whiff of entitlement around it that remains even after losing two successive elections. Labour MPs are not an impressive bunch for the most part, but they talk as if them being in power is almost a right, that they deserve it whether or not the people think they deserve it. There is a lack of respect for the voter here which I think comes out again and again in the way that Labour MPs and their allies talked about the referendum vote before it happened and continue to do so now. Alan Johnson is a lovely chap, but when he said as chair of the Labour In campaign that “we are the reasonable people” and “I think in the leave side they are the extremists on this,” he was reflecting a more general view that ‘staying in Europe’ was right in an absolute sense rather than just a political decision reached by weighing up the pros and cons.

In a similar vein, it seems to me no coincidence that Labour people are now lining up to echo the lines of bankers and big business groups, since their aims and approach are broadly the same in seeking to defend the status quo but also in assuming that they are right in an absolute sense and have a right to dictate what happens, even if that means going against the democratic will.

This isn’t wholly about Labour though. Nick Clegg and Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrats and some Tories have been repeating the same lines. There is a broader elite, Establishment entitlement thing going on here, encompassing most of public administration, the media and civil society – where it is no exaggeration to say that the decision to Leave is not seen in a positive light for the most part, despite (and indeed perhaps partly because of) the majority that chose it. They claim they have ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘expertise’ on their side, and this is true in the sense that elites and Establishments control the dissemination of facts and evidence; they are the experts, they have the existing authority. If you control dissemination of information (for example through government, the media and academia), you can choose which facts to bring to light and which to suppress. You can generate data to serve your own ends (as with the largely fabricated ‘hate crime’ epidemic); you can make predictions for the future and claim the authority of fact for them (which is a contradiction in terms, for facts by definition have happened already).

Ardent Remainers are using all the considerable Establishment power at their disposal to attack the EU referendum result from every conceivable angle, trying to undermine the morale and confidence of people in leaving the EU with view to preventing it from happening or minimising change. Of course, an awful lot of this is down to support for continuing and indefinite mass immigration, which has been major point of crossover between big business interests and the political left since the early years of New Labour.

What free movement and high immigration in general does is maintain a kind of inverse form of job exporting or outsourcing. Whereas in the conventional form, exporting jobs means moving production facilities to other countries where productivity can be higher, mass immigration has opened up the prospect for domestic-focused businesses to do the same sort of thing, but by importing people, and thereby allowing jobs to go to the people of elsewhere but not elsewhere itself.

Along these lines it has become quite clear from the continuing EU referendum debate that one of the biggest attractions for employers in the British economy is that they don’t have to employ British people. We should understand and respect this for the most part from a purely business-related point of view or even just a basic choice point of view. They are making decisions which they think are best for their businesses. But what good does it do to Britons who are passed over and rejected and who find their terms and conditions attacked while also being priced out of housing? In a democracy, as a political left, aren’t these the people (citizens) that we should be looking out for first and foremost? Can we not see a loss of morale in these people? Yet the left in its now-customary technocratic stance repeatedly pulls away from such things to the comforts of the abstract ‘economy’ and what levers can be pulled to make ‘it’ function better, preferring the ‘it’ to the ‘us’.

On 23rd June, I voted for ‘us’ to start having more control over ‘it’, and also over ‘them’ - the people that were managing ‘it’ and continue to do so. I voted against the people who enjoy deriding me and my fellow Leave voters as ignorant, bigoted idiots who shouldn’t be allowed a vote and will hopefully die off so we can get back into the EU. The more they shout and insult and deride, the more my resolution builds. Je ne regrette rien.

On the EU referendum, this article explains my decision to vote Leave while this is a speech made at the London School of Economics proposing the motion ‘This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union’.